SECULAR EDUCATION IS AN OXYMORON

The Christian school movement—whether on the primary, the secondary, or the collegiate level—is the stepchild of the church.  We give lip service to its importance, but we will not support it on a level at which it can function well.  It struggles to pay its faculty a living wage and still remain affordable enough so that it can be a viable option for parents in the real world; but these are incompatible goals.  They simply cannot both be met without a constant infusion of cash from outside the tuition structure—whether from endowments or from unrestricted giving.  Most Christian schools do not have the endowments and aren’t going to get what they need in gifts.  Qualified faculty members are hard to retain, and when they are retained they are usually overworked in ways that make it hard for them to advance in their fields.

Not Secular Education

Nevertheless, despite their constant struggle for survival, Christian schools almost all outperform the public schools when it comes to the basics, the three Rs—not even to mention inculcating the biblical worldview.  We need them to have a much greater impact than they do, but we are not willing to make the sacrifices necessary for that to happen.  We talk a good game, but they continue to struggle, and the church is content to have it so.  This is a major reason why Reformation stalls and Revival tarries. How do we get beyond talking a good game and start actually playing one?  Understanding the real nature of the alternative might help.  Public schools are not what they claim to be: neutral with regard to religion.

Let us imagine that we are trying to create a school that will do what our secular, state schools think they are obligated to do: provide an education that is religiously neutral.  It will not be Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox; it will not be Christian, Muslim, or New-Age; it will not even be theistic, animistic, pantheistic, or atheistic. It will maintain a strict neutrality on all such beliefs.  And let us imagine that it succeeds in that neutrality, treating all such beliefs even-handedly the same, neither privileging one nor denigrating any. We might be able to imagines such a thing—until we get down to specifics.  And then our supposed neutrality will quickly vanish into thin air.

As we design our curriculum, we find that we have to ask what our purpose is. What do we want our graduates to be?  Well, surely we want them to be productive workers, able to hold good jobs and provide for themselves.  But all the vocational training in the world will not accomplish that goal if they are dishonest, lazy, and lacking in self-discipline.  Employers will not retain them if they cannot trust them.  So in order to achieve what we thought was the purely secular goal of vocational training we discover that we cannot ignore virtue.  But which set of virtues are we going to inculcate?  On what basis?  Will it be Christian ethics, or Sharia law, or moral therapeutic deism, or naturalistic utilitarianism?  Will a purely pragmatic view of honesty as something that will help you keep your job suffice to keep you from stealing from your employer if you think you can get away with it?  Even if we think it will, we have just lost our neutrality.  For now we are teaching ethics as if atheism were true. 

Do we just want our graduates to be good workers, or do we also want them to be good citizens?  Society will surely expect us to do something toward the latter end.  So what kind of country are we training them to be citizens of?  One that is founded on the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, or one that thinks such ideas are only rhetorical  flourishes that were thought useful in the past?  One that grounds its concept of rights in the created order or one that grounds it in the will of the majority?  Or one that just grounds it in the perceived greater good of the greater number?  Or one that has no concept of rights for anyone not favored by those in power?  Once again, our goal of religious neutrality has proved elusive.  We have to make choices that have religious implications.  We don’t have the choice not to do so.  The only choice we have is whether or not we are going to be honest about it.

Secular education is an oxymoron.  It is a contradiction in terms.  It cannot really be religiously neutral without implying that it does not matter which religion one embraces, or whether one embraces any.  And if religion has no consequences, then it is trivial and unimportant.  The harder education tries to be secular, then, the more it becomes secularist.  Atheism is subtly privileged, in effect, as the only truth that matters.

This message is effectively delivered by the whole structure of the curriculum even if it is never actually verbalized.  The very premise of neutrality prevents anyone from saying anything that could possibly contradict it.  Even if released time for religious instruction is granted, that instruction is secluded and segregated from the rest of the curriculum. Science, history, civics, and literature will still have to be taught as if that religious instruction did not exist.  One reason Christians lost their influence in the public schools is that they had been lying to themselves about what, by its very inherent nature, public education was capable of being.

The full effects of educational religious neutrality were obscured as long as America had a strong Judeo-Christian consensus at the core of its common culture.  We could pretend that neutrality just meant that the public schools would be non-sectarian.  They would not be Baptist or Presbyterian or Methodist, but they would uphold ecumenical truths like those at the foundation of the Declaration of Independence.  But when the failure of the churches to fulfill their mission of evangelism and discipleship had allowed that consensus to erode beyond a certain point, the real nature of the monster that had been created in public education became no longer avoidable.

When I was in high school, in the public schools of Fulton County, Georgia, as late as the 1960s, we started each day with a reading from the Bible piped over the public address system to every homeroom.  Students volunteered to do those readings, and Christians were the ones with the motivation to volunteer.  It was a good thing.  But today, would we want the same practice restored?  Stop and think before you say yes.  On what basis could the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita, or even the Red Book of Mao, be excluded, if someone were motivated to read it?  The old consensus cannot be restored simply by blindly pretending that it was never lost.

Is public education a necessary evil?  Maybe it is.  Somebody has to teach the masses basic literacy and math if they are to be employable at all.  But Christians must not continue to be naïve about what it is; they must not continue to be naive about the dynamics that drive it to be dishonest about its neutrality even when good and well-meaning people are trying to work in that system.  They need to become much more serious about providing an alternative, providing it well, and making it available to larger numbers of people.  Otherwise they will not be able to maintain their own distinctive subculture, much less reach the larger culture with the Gospel.

Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College.  He is the author of eleven books, most recently Deeper Magic: The Theology Behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2016) and “An Encouraging Thought”: The Christian Worldview in the Writings of J. R. R. Tolkien (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018).